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Do Brains Have a Gender? International Women's Day

Have you ever heard the quote “men are from Mars and women are from Venus?” How many times has someone told you to “man up” or “act like a lady”? Our society frequently tells us that there are innate differences between genders – for example, that men are naturally better at maths, or that women are more nurturing.


We start learning these stereotypes early. In fact, from as young as seven, girls significantly underestimate their own intelligence compared to boys their age. Professor Lin Bian conducted a study with 240 5–7 year olds, where she told them a story about a “really, really smart person”, then asked them to identify this fictional genius from a series of different pictures. At five years old, all children picked out pictures of people who were the same gender as them, but by seven, both girls and boys were more likely to identify the genius as a man. In another test, Bian invited the children to play a game for “really, really smart children”, and found that girls were less likely to want to play [1].


Myth Busting

So is there any truth to these stereotypes? Are men and women’s brains really wired differently? Well, for a long time, many neuroscientists would have told you yes. Until recently, scientists believed that, on average, women had smaller brains, making them less intelligent. One pervasive neuro-myth claimed that men had almost seven times more grey matter than women, while women had ten times more white matter – which, some believed, meant that men had higher IQs (although, if this was true, women’s heads would need to be 50% bigger than they are!)


More recently, though, feminist neuroscientists like Gina Rippon [2] and Cordelia Fine [3] have been working to combat this “neurosexism”. They point out that studies showing neurological differences between men’s and women’s brains often don’t factor in things like brain volume or differences between individuals – and are often completely untrue!


Though our genetics do have some bearing on how our brains work – for example, disposition towards depression [4] and insomnia [5] can be inherited from our parents – we are also shaped by our environment and experiences. Everything we learn, see, do, experience and feel helps to build new connections between neurons, and strengthen existing neural pathways. This “brain plasticity”, or neural flexibility, means that our brains are physically shaped and changed by the process of learning – in other words, practice really does make perfect!


The brain is a complicated organ, and many other things can affect our brains, too. Neuroscientists have found that pregnancy and giving birth can affect the makeup of a person’s brain (leading to ideas like “maternal instinct” and “baby brain”). However, they have also found that parents who didn’t give birth undergo neurological changes too, as they have to learn so many things at lightning speed – and often on very little sleep! [8]


Gender and Learning

We grow up steeped in gender stereotypes. From the moment we’re born, girls are often dressed in pink, given dolls and taught to be kind, gentle and nurturing, while boys are encouraged to explore and be assertive. Our brains are at their most plastic in childhood, so is it any surprise that they absorb these roles? If girls are “practicing” being caregivers and boys are “practicing” curiosity, those related neural pathways will get stronger and stronger.


We can also fall victim to something called “stereotype threat”, where people internalise and act out stereotypes they’re told about themselves. This stereotype threat is what leads little girls to think they’re not “really, really smart”, and boys to believe that they can’t show emotion [6]. It’s also what leads to fewer women pursuing STEM careers (in 2019, boys were twice as likely to want to become scientists than girls, and four times more likely to want to become engineers [7]).


This is why it’s so important to combat these gender stereotypes from a young age. The world needs brilliant women in STEM, and kind, caring boys, and absolutely everything in between. Instead of splitting children into arbitrary camps – girls versus boys – let them learn that children are just children, and each person is completely unique.


Your brain doesn’t come “pre-wired”, and certainly isn’t determined by your biological sex or assigned gender. You get to rewire your own brain – and that’s amazing!



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